In what was widely hailed as an important moment in LGBT history, the Department of Justice recently came out strongly against North Carolina’s HB2 law. The law, which prohibits safe bathroom access for transgender and gender non-conforming people, has also been criticized by advocates and the many communities that are directly impacted by the legislation.
But what is often left out of media coverage on HB2 is the fact that it does more than restrict bathroom access. It also amends the state’s Wage and Hour Act to prevent any city, county, or other political jurisdiction within the state from passing or enforcing legislation or voter-mandated pro-worker policies, including minimum wage increases and paid family and medical leave laws. These restrictions have a tangible impact on people and families, including transgender and gender non-conforming communities, who are more likely than their peers to be job insecure and living in poverty.
In undermining the rights of workers, this law also undercuts what has become an important strategy through which antipoverty advocates are able to create change and influence state policy. Over the past year, cities, counties and states have moved to adopt higher minimum wages. Los Angeles, for example, passed legislation last year that raised its city-wide minimum wage to $15. And just this month, California passed a similar increase statewide, as did New York. Both states’ minimum wages are now far above the federal standard of $7.25 per hour.
Advocates in cities and counties have also had recent success in passing paid leave protections that are more expansive than what is provided by their states or the federal government. San Francisco recently adopted the most generous paid family leave law in the country, which requires all city employers with 20 or more workers to cover a full six weeks of paid family leave. Such laws have a significant impact on people and families with low-incomes, because low-wage workers are far less likely to have access to paid leave through work. Without these protections in place, workers may incur lost wages — or even be fired — if they take time off for unavoidable personal or medical emergencies.
Unfortunately, North Carolina isn’t the only state that is stripping cities and counties of their ability to pass proactive worker protections. In several other states, legislatures have either passed or introduced similar anti-worker bills — often in response to local minimum wage increases — with assistance and encouragement from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. While Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recently vetoed a similar bill that had made its way through the state’s legislature, anti-worker operatives continue to push damaging legislation.
The Department of Justice has rightly challenged the anti-transgender discrimination codified in HB2, but it is important to recognize that other portions of the bill deserve similar legal and political scrutiny for their dangerous impact on low-income people and communities of color.
In Alabama, the NAACP is challenging a similar law with a lawsuit against the state. The suit claims that Alabama’s state law — which was passed earlier this year as a direct response to a city-wide minimum wage increase in Birmingham — is unconstitutional because it specifically targets Birmingham’s workers, who are overwhelmingly people of color. Last year, Birmingham became the first city in the Deep South to pass a minimum wage increase. According to the NAACP, the Alabama state legislature’s action builds upon a legacy of race-motivated preemption that was rampant during and after the days of Jim Crow.
In addition to issuing legal challenges, groups are also taking on these laws through direct action and legislative advocacy. For example, the North Carolina NAACP has joined forces with transgender rights advocates to engage in a series of protests, sit-ins, and legislative proposals that call for a full repeal of the anti-democratic HB2 law and highlight the entire range of its consequences.
“We cannot be silent in the face of this race-based, class-based, homophobic and transphobic attack on wage earners, civil rights, and the LGBTQ community,” said Reverend Dr. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP. “Together with our many allies, we will coordinate a campaign of nonviolent direct action along with other forms of nonviolent protest that will instruct our legislators with respect to the rights of all people.”
Whether through legal advocacy or direct action, the federal government and advocates on the ground must continue to highlight and challenge the full range of damaging consequences wrought by HB2. This includes not only fighting back against North Carolina’s law, but taking on the many other pre-emptive bills across the country that will do harm to people with low-incomes and communities of color.
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